He pulled the heavy volume from it’s place on the tall shelf and stared down at in with some reverence. The chronicles did not yet include him, but they would. That was something, wasn’t it? Ash was known as the greatest Fire Dancer of his time. He had known fame that most people could only dream of, the people of the Republic would know his name for years to come.
He hadn’t thought his imminent departure from the arena would affect him in such a way. He was surprised to feel the pain was physical; it started in his gut and spread from his belly up into his chest. Or perhaps it was just heartburn from his earlier meal. He didn’t like to think just how possible the latter outcome actually was.
There was no place more sacred to him than the arena. He cherished the blood stained dirt, the acrid scent of blood and gore that inflamed his nostrils, the rush of a screaming crowd.
Retirement won’t be so bad. His mantra. He repeated the words to himself, trying to stem the ever flowing numbness that threatened to engulf him. Never again would he step out onto that dirt. Never again would he hear his name echo on the cries of thousands. He had enough wealth to last until the end of his days and he would never want for water but his fame…. His fame wouldn’t last forever and in the eyes of future spectators he was already forgotten.
He blew the thick layer of dust off the tome and opened it, careful not to overly disturb the brittle pages. So many, he mused. The art of Fire Dancing had been applied to the arena for over a century and there had been many heroes. Each had their moment to bask in the love of the people and each was eventually immortalized in this chronicle.
It was all Ash had left to look forward to, his name in a dust covered book.
He poured over the names of the hundreds that had come before him, some names brought a smile to his thin lips, Lightning and Flash Fire had come years before him but were some of the greats. Ash had even gotten to watch Flash Fire in the arena before Singe had crushed his back. He let loose a soft sigh and raked his fingers through his thinning hair. There were so many he didn’t know. Will I be remembered?
He heard the trumpet’s cry, marking the beginning of an arena battle. He turned toward the sound, his blood singing in response to its call. He must have followed the noise down the sacred halls because he found himself at the doors that opened up to the arena, unsure how he’d gotten there. He blinked at the doors before him, struggling to remember when he’d left the arena library.
The large metal burned hot from the heat that emanated in waves from within the arena. Two gladiators stood beside them, rolling sore muscles and checking armor before the fight. Ash reached for his own assegai only to remember he’d left it leaning against the door frame of his bedroom. Am I losing my memory already? So soon?
“Still here old man?” Timber grinned. Young, arrogant, and the current favorite in the arena, he was a massive man that towered over Ash’s own frame. Ash was not a puny man, but in the shadow of Timber’s presence he felt weathered and stooped. He couldn’t believe that he’d left the arena little more than an hour ago, the moment was already as fleeting as yesterday.
“Lay off him,” snapped Kindle. She placed a gentle hand on Ash’s shoulder. “Come to watch me pummel him into the sand?” Her blue eyes sparkled and the tiny scar over her left eyebrow gave her a dashing appearance before she slipped on her helmet and adjusted her brilliant blue breast plate.
A Fire Dancer’s armor covered their shoulders, chest, back and face. The arms and legs were left exposed to allow for maximum movement in the arena. Many Dancer’s had their careers ended from a badly timed move that had left their appendages as nothing more than smoldering stumps. Ash’s own eyebrows had burned off more than once and he sported an ugly scar that ran up the entire length of his right arm. He looked down at the scar now, remembering when it had been red and angry. Now it was white and almost forgotten, like him.
Timber snorted, his armor was a deep emerald green, its vivid color a stark contrast to his dark skin. “That would be something to see. Stick around old man, let me show you what we gladiators are doing these days.”
Ash nodded, “I’ll stay for the match. Give you a few pointers after.” Kindle squeezed his shoulder.
Timber grinned, “I saw your little exhibition this afternoon. I think I might have something new for you.”
Ash ground his teeth and said nothing. His fingers flexed with the need to knock in Timber’s teeth, but he kept his hand trained by his side. Though he was an arrogant ass, Timber was not to blame for Ash’s departure from the arena.
Oblivious to Ash’s anger, Timber pursed his lips and kissed the air between himself and Kindle, “As for you, stay out of my way. The people came to see a real fight.”
“I’d worry more about staying alive and less about running my mouth if I were you,” Kindle retorted.
Envious, Ash watched the exchange between Timber and Kindle. If only he’d been able to leave the arena in a blaze of smoke and fire. No gladiator deserved to live so long and he resented his every breath, it was his right to die young and glorious. His afternoon stint had been nothing more than a farewell show and apparently everyone knew it. He’d fought Smolder, a massive beast that had killed dozens of Fire Dancers in her prime. Now she was used mostly in the training arena, sparring practice for new cadets. Killing her had been an act of mercy.
The trumpets sounded again and Ash’s body hummed with the excitement of a new battle, the hairs on the back of his neck rose up and shivers raced down his spine. Nothing compared to the thrill that came with the start of a fresh fight.
The battle was starting and he would give anything to be allowed to participate. He tightened his jaw and pushed the feeling aside.
He followed the two dancers through the heavy doors that led into the arena and turned to the hallway just to the side of the arena entry gate. He was no longer allowed in the arena, but he could take a seat in the glass spectator box reserved for the trainers, owners and the upper society of the Republic. He was welcomed there, and was greeted by a polite smattering of applause and a few handshakes. His name had not died yet.
He’d never watched from the spectator box before and there was something to be said for the experience. Ash preferred to be out in the open where he could feel and smell the action. The air behind the glass wall was sweet smelling and servants waited in every corner, eager to refill their master’s wine and offer fan service against the scorching heat of the flames. Ash took his seat next to Beshar, a member of the Thirteen. Beshar sat on the edge of his seat, clutching at a handkerchief, and Ash noticed the hungry look in the man’s eyes, he was probably an owner in the upcoming match.
Beshar shook his hand enthusiastically. “Ash! Ash Fire Dancer. We’ve met once before, after you slaughtered Reckoning. That was some fight.” He continued to work Ash’s hand up and down.
Ash wondered what the man’s Rank was although it really wasn’t important. He was used to men of all rank fawning over him, but it still felt good to have the attention of one of the Thirteen.
“Are you working as a trainer now?” Beshar’s question was polite and mumbled as an afterthought, his eyes now riveted on the empty sand field.
It was common practice for retired Dancers to take on new cadets to train in the ways of the arena. Ash had given it little thought before now, perhaps Beshar was on to something. He imagined taking on a cadet, perhaps through training new blood his legacy could live on. Ash smiled at the idea. It was a marvelous solution, he would do anything to get back in the arena.
“Scouting out the competition.” Ash had to raise his voice because the spectators in the arena had begun to cheer and shout. Were they chanting Timber’s name? He ignored them. “Who have you got today?”
“Wildfire, making her debut.” Beshar wiped at his brow with his crumpled perfumed handkerchief. “She’s small, but agile as they come. We might see some blood tonight.” His face was hard and eager, an odd expression on his pale round features.
Arena battles could end in three ways. The owner could call an end to the fight to protect his investment at which point the Fire Dancers would be awarded a win and the owner was allowed to take his beast home to be used for breeding purposes. This was seldom done as even the owners liked to see the Dancers bring out blood. The second was a fight called off by the Dancers themselves. If a Dancer was feeling overwhelmed they could concede defeat and take a loss. A loss forced them to remove themselves from the arena and recoup for a minimum of three moon cycles. When and if, the Dancer returned they were almost always out of favor with the crowd. Ash would have rather died in the arena then call for mercy while he licked his wounds. The final and preferred ending to the arena battle was an all out battle royale. Two Fire Dancers entered the arena with the beast and in the end only one, dancer or beast remained standing.
The arena trumpets sounded one last time, their tune slightly different from before, the sound announced the entry of the beast. Ash leaned forward in his seat, drumming his fingers against his aching knees. Timber and Kindle began to turn and leap, cartwheeling across the dirt arena, warming up their bodies and exhibiting an exotic display of acrobatics for the restless crowd.
The unmistakable sound of the metal gates rolling back indicated Wildfire’s release. The crowd grew silent in anticipation of her debut.
She stepped out slowly and, as always, the initial sight caused Ash to swallow a lump in his throat.
First to appear was her clawed foot, claws that were capable of shredding a man to ribbons with a single blow. Her head appeared next, it was massive, the size of four men, and her giant eyes scanned the arena, black and feral. Her neck arched as she sniffed the air, her forked tongue flickered out, tasting her surroundings. She hissed, and smoke curled from her nostrils. Firelight from dozens of glimmering torches danced off her scales and cast prisms of eerie green light on the dancers. As she made her way out from her holding stall, her huge tail uncoiled behind her and caused a furrow of sand several meters tall in its wake.
Once fully emerged she stood still a moment, staring out at the crowd as if daring them to look away from her majesty. Then she leaped from the arena ground and took flight, causing the crowd to roar in delight as she flew up and circled the dome of the arena. The people were not afraid, they were blood thirsty and ready for the fight.
The spectator box darkened under the shadow of her flight and Beshar slapped Ash on the back shouting. “Didn’t I say she was something?”
He rubbed his hands together and Ash smiled at the reverent look in the owner’s eye. This wasn’t his first dragon but Beshar was certainly proud of this one. And he should be, Ash thought, admiring the dragon’s display as she circled the arena. Her body was a sensuous display of twisting, gleaming scales. She bellowed her fury, a stream of molten fire shooting out against the sturdy reinforced glass ceiling of the arena. There was no escape and soon, angered, she would land and fight the Dancers.
He knew his knees could never handle another fight with such a young dragon, yet Ash wished he was out there, even if it meant it was his last fight. His death would be beautiful.
Timber and Kindle stood at the bottom, Kindle nervous and hopping from foot to foot, Timber calm and still as a stone.
Wildfire landed on the ground, causing the arena to shake. She turned on Kindle first, propelling a line of fire directly at the young dancer. Kindle leaned back, throwing out her arms as she did and the fire rolled away from her, ricocheting off the glass of the spectator booth. Beshar jumped and Ash chuckled.
Furious, Wildfire flicked her tail around and Kindle leaped over it, somersaulting in the air and landing nimbly on her feet. The crowd roared. Timber made his move. While Wildfire’s attention was captured by Kindle he sprang toward her, his assegai gleaming as it plunged into her chest.
The dragon roared and turned toward Timber, simultaneously swatting Kindle with her gigantic tail. Kindle bounced off the arena floor and lie still. Timber’s weapon was stuck in her scales so he twisted backwards, performing a series of twirling leaps to stay in motion.
To the crowd, the fire just appeared around Timber’s twirling form but to Ash it was a thing of beauty. A Fire Dancer’s ability lay in their power to manipulate the flames to move around them. So long as the Dancer anticipated the moves of the dragon and understood their body, fire was as harmless to them as it was to the dragon. Timber pulled the flames from the dragon and held on, bonding the fire to him. He became a tornado of flames, spinning ever faster and the crowd screamed in exultation as Timber released the fire at the dragon. The flames wouldn’t hurt her and were mostly for show but what a show it was.
Timber was so seamless that even to Ash it looked as if he was creating fire. The notion was impossible, but the thought had Ash grudgingly admitting to himself that Timber was as good as he’d claimed. Better, even. Wildfire spit fire back at Timber in retaliation and Ash watched him pull it around him and shoot it up toward the dome. The crowd went crazy, stomping their feet and screaming.
Timber leaped forward to retrieve his assegai and yanked it from Wildfire’s chest causing blood to spray across the dirt. The dragon bugled in pain and spit another ball of fire that Timber deflected easily with a twisting leap. The fire curved around him and hit the dirt near Kindle’s still form. Timber shook his assegai in the air and the crowd chanted his name. Ash was so caught up in the fight that he didn’t care. Let them call out Timber’s name for in this moment he was a god and Ash was living through him.
The dragon continued to blow fire at Timber but he had caught the rhythm of her breathing now and she was no match for him. When she raised up on her hind legs he took the opportunity and plunged his assegai deep into her exposed belly, ripping it open. Blood and gore spilled across the arena floor and Wildfire gave a final cry before collapsing into the dirt. Sand billowed up in a porous cloud around him and as the dust settled, Timber straddled the fallen beast and raised his assegai to the chanting crowd. His eyes met Ash, and the retired gladiator suddenly felt impossibly cold and rubbed his arms against the chill.
“She didn’t last very long,” Beshar mumbled, disappointed.
He stood up to leave and Ash followed him. He didn’t want to watch Timber accept his winnings.